Thursday, October 03, 2019

 

Preserving the Lost Era of Popeye's Thimble Theatre

 

An interview with Jonathan Lozovsky

By Fred M. Grandinetti


Popeye the Sailor celebrated his 90th birthday on January 17, 2019. In Huntington Beach California a beautifully constructed timeline of the sailor's career was on display. Naturally, the work of E.C. Segar, who created Popeye for his Thimble Theatre comic strip was showcased. Segar's stories are regarded as classics and have been reprinted several times in different book collections. Bud Sagendorf (1915-1994) and Bobby London, two of Segar's successors on the comic strip, had their work on display. Sagendorf was Segar's assistant and produced the Popeye comic book series for several years. London took a more modern approach to the characters introducing them to heavy metal music and the home shopping network.

Bela Zaboly
Unfortunately, cartoonist Bela "Bill" Zaboly (1910-1985) who illustrated Popeye's daily and Sunday adventures from 1939 to 1958 (though his daily and Sunday page work continued to be published throughout most of 1959), was not on display nor mentioned. During his tenure drawing the sailor's adventures he worked with two writers: Tom Sims (1896- 1972) and Ralph Stein (1909-1994).  Additionally, Zaboly's artwork was used on a number of products. These items were produced when Popeye's theatrical cartoon series became immensely successful on television.

Zaboly, Sims and Stein’s work, except for brief snippets, have not been reprinted in the United States. That has now changed thanks to the efforts of archivist Jonathan Lozovsky.  He took on the daunting task of locating all of Popeye's comic strips from this missing era. Lozovsky collected them from various sources and cleaned them up. They are now published in each issue of The Official Popeye Fan Club Newsmagazine. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lozovsky regarding his preservation effort.


Q:When did you first discover Popeye?

A: I was first introduced to the Popeye franchise by my father with the Fleischer cartoons. I specifically remember the first time I saw the sailor on the small screen. The cartoon was Seasin's Greetinks! and my eyes immediately increased in size because of the smooth and fluid movement that the Fleischers’ accomplished. I later became more and more interested in the character Popeye and wanted to know everything about him. During my search I realized that Popeye was also in comic strip form and I quickly fell in love with E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre. After that I wanted to know what else E.C. Segar had created, and during that time I sadly found out that he died in 1938. But then I also found out that the Thimble Theatre strip was still being published and I wanted to know what happened to Popeye after E.C. Segar's death. After years and years of waiting for something of Popeye to be reprinted in hardcover form, my faith began to diminish with only the Segar years being reprinted by Fantagraphics. I thought what better way to preserve these rarely seen comic strips than to collect them digitally where they wouldn’t tarnish or yellow because of age. I created this project for the true Popeye fans to read and enjoy.

Zaboly entertaining young fans

Q: Do you recall how you were introduced to the artwork of Bela Zaboly? What was your initial impression?

I was introduced to Bela Zaboly’s artwork during my search for everything Popeye related. Back then the internet was still a fresh idea and Google was an even newer idea. I did a quick Google search on Popeye and found some strips that didn’t quite look like the E.C. Segar strips I was previously familiar with. I was fascinated. Turns out they were from the early 1950’s, by Bela Zaboly and Tom Sims. I immediately thought “how could I find more?” Back then there were very few Bela Zaboly strips available to the public and reprints were virtually impossible to find in the United States of America (outside the states, it seems Zaboly’s strips were more commonly reprinted). My first impression was just how interesting the “new” Popeye characters looked.

By the 1950’s, Bela Zaboly had fully transformed the Thimble Theatre characters into his own style. Originally, Bela Zaboly replicated E.C. Segar’s style to match with the consistency of the strip. He removed the gritty style and matched closer to the cartoon style of the era. I think this really helped him differentiate his artwork. He was the first cartoonist on the Thimble Theatre strip to introduce a new art style to the Thimble Theatre franchise and I believe that should be applauded.

Tom Sims, circa 1920s
Q: Zaboly worked with two writers during his tenure on the comic strip. Tom Sims wrote the daily strip until 1954 when Ralph Stein took control. Sims continued to work with Zaboly on the Sunday until 1958 although, as previously mentioned, their work was published throughout most of 1959. What were your impressions of these writers and did you witness any evolution in Zaboly’s art when Stein began writing the daily strip? While you were collecting these strips did you discover anything new?

 

A: Tom Sims was a great writer for keeping the Thimble Theatre characters in their usual environment. His writing style was consistent, and he didn’t take risks through his Popeye run. I believe that Tom Sims enjoyed the concept of keeping the Thimble Theatre characters at bay and on the sea boat.

On the other hand, Ralph Stein was a major risk taker. With Ralph Stein taking over the writing position of the strip, we see the Thimble Theatre characters take many adventures. We see Popeye travel all around the world. Ralph Stein introduced and re-introduced so many characters that readers either never saw before or remembered from the E.C. Segar years. We also see that after Ralph Stein took over as the new writer, Bela Zaboly’s style once again changed and now became his most recognizable style. We even see Swee’Pea growing up and at one point is able to walk on his own. Bluto returns to the strips under Ralph Stein. The strip really comes into its own under Ralph Stein’s writing style.



Q: Why do you feel Bud Sagendorf and Bobby London get the lion’s share of attention while Zaboly, Sims and Stein’s contributions are barely mentioned? Was it their frequent omission which you led you to collect their work?

I discovered so much while collecting these “lost” strips. We now have confirmed and accurate dates for characters that made their first appearances or reappearances in the Zaboly strips. We finally have the ability to fully read through storylines that were previously only available in either broken sections or in low quality. With The Zaboly Project being completed, more research could be done on Bela Zaboly, Tom Sims, and Ralph Stein.

Sims/Zaboly Sunday page

Stein/Zaboly daily strip

 


Bud Sagendorf and Bobby London receive the lion’s share of attention because they were both unique in their own right. Sagendorf drew both the comic strip and comic book versions of the Thimble Theatre series. This introduced more children to the series. I remember when I was growing up, I would run to my local comic book store just to look through all the comic book bins to find a comic that stood out to me. Imagine if other superheroes like Batman or Spider-Man were only available in newspaper form, how popular do you think they would be? The same principal applies here. For most children growing up in the 1960’s, Bud Sagendorf was their first Thimble Theatre artist, hence his popularity. Bud Sagendorf is also vastly talented.

Now in Bobby London’s case, he became popular for bringing the Thimble Theatre characters into a completely new world; the modern world. Almost overnight, Popeye and his friends were advanced forward almost eighty years into the future and learned to adapt to their surroundings. Bobby London took risks where most artists wouldn’t dare go and for those risks his employment at King Feature Syndicate was terminated.

I believe the reason that Zaboly, Sims and Stein’s contributions are not being appreciated today is due to the availability of their work. As of now (unless you had a massive album of the original newspaper cutouts), the only way to view these “lost” strips is through my project; The Zaboly Project, and through the Official Popeye Fan Club magazines. Without a project like this, these strips would be forgotten as it has been for some time now.

Q: What sources did you use to obtain the comic strips and how difficult was it to make each presentable for viewing? Could you describe your process?

A: The process of collecting these digital newspaper comic strips is rather difficult. I start by finding a digital source that features the Thimble Theatre comic strips in their comics’ section. Then I screen capture the section that features the comic strip and save it onto my desktop. I then rename the file by the date of the comic strip. After I collect about a month's worth of comic strips, I upload it to a cloud-based storage drive that allows me to access the strips anywhere via smartphone or tablet. After I finish collecting the strips, I replace any strips that are smudged or hard to read.
 
Finding the strips themselves isn't hard, but when you’re missing one important strip it becomes a nightmare to find a new digital newspaper source that has that one particular strip you need.


Q:  What has been the reaction from Popeye fans regarding your efforts?


A: The reaction from Popeye fans regarding my Bela Zaboly project has been very positive! When I first had the idea and motivation to complete such an ambitious assignment, the Popeye community was extremely supportive, but they also understood that something like this couldn’t be done overnight. The project proved to be very challenging as some of my vintage newspaper sources had either abruptly stopped publishing the Thimble Theatre strip or just didn’t have high enough quality scans in their archives. This is when the Popeye community really stepped in and help tremendously by supplying the missing pieces to the puzzle. When the project was finally finished, the Popeye community loved it! They loved the idea that they would now be able to read the continuation of a once “lost” era in Thimble Theatre history.

Stein/Zaboly daily strip
 The Popeye community loved the project so much that the strips featured in my project are now being printed in the Official Popeye Fan Club magazines. This has truly been an honor to be featured in a magazine that I use to love reading through when I was younger and to have the support of  the Official Popeye Fan Club was something that I never imagined could result from my project. The whole thing just seemed so surreal by just how many fans were patiently waiting for something like this to happen and become available. I can’t thank the Popeye community enough for their support and help throughout the completion of The Zaboly Project!

To join the Official Popeye Fan Club to follow the work of Bela Zaboly, Tom Sims and Ralph Stein please go to http://www.popeyethesailor.com/club/

Comments:
Hello Allen, SG fans-
I offer here some reasons why the serious collector reprints of Popeye have been nearly exclusively of the Segar era, just as the international commercial comic book reprints were of the Sagendorf era; nobody much wanted the stuff between.
When Segar passed awy in 1938, the strip was given to Doc Winner, the KFS bullpen man who was given the job of fill-in ghost whenever the need arose, whether he was suitable or not. He was the hackiest of hacks, yet he was put in charge of what then was our fastest growing title. The Sims-Zaboly team should have been put in place from the start, but it took over year of Winner's dreary wanderings to take the shine off the Popeye strip first. I know our client list for Popeye shrank steadily from 1938 on, never recovering.
The Zaboly style was far superior to Winner, and the strip looked good. The trouble is, perhaps with an eye on increasing marketability,the material takes a definately childish turn, especially the Sundays, which are on a preschool level.
The 1950's and the Stein years are bizarre in that they decided to dump everything and recast the premise as to be no longer a story about Popeye, but about Popeye and the never heard of before, never asked for, never needed, new character, Sir Vauxhaul Pomeroy. It's them two, like Siamese twins. He's stuck to Popeye constantly. It's unusual to see them NOT together in every panel. They really wanted to push this new character,who was a caricature pith-helmeted, monocled British Big Game hunter. To include him constantly, the panels are often very crowded, that and it's also very wordy, squeezing the action even further. In addition, Stein's tenure also featured lots of exaggerated hour-glass figured, scantily clad girls at every turn, even going to surreal lengths, like having a story villianess, be a girl Admiral dressed like she's in a Minsky version of HMS Pinafore.
Outside of England, Where Dean's put out some Christmas Annuals featuring Popeye and "Pommy" in about 1957 to 1960, the new character did nothing good for Popeye. When Sagendorf arrived in 1960, it put the series at least back in recognizable form. Now say what you like about Sagendorf, he was far from the worst. In fact, his strips were loved and reprinted all over the world for many years in papers and comic books. This is not really so about his predecessors. In all my years at KFS, supplying international publishers with material, nobody ever asked for anything but Segar and Sagendorf.
As for London's version, I don't know if there's many who might care about it that don't have the story yet,so I'll just briefly state here that he decided he'd use Popeye to air his leftward politics in a way intended to be offensive and controversial. He got his controversy, and the sack. I think a collection of some of his strips came out later, but if you read them, throughout, one gets the feeling that he held Popeye in contempt. It's all one long mockery of Popeye and everything you know about him. Feel the anger! No foriegn clients had much interest in them after the sheer novelty wore off. We never made back whatever we paid him. Today, (at least when I left)in the few client papers remaining, Popeye is in perpetual Sagendorf loop of late 1960s to mid 1980's strips.
 
I’ve already told my story to CBR and it’s a cheap shot to go after my politics or love for the strip which were both automatically held in low regard by Johnson and other movers at the syndicate. My client list was on the rise when they cut me loose and they were afraid they’d either have to pay me more than the slave wages I was getting or I’dvtry to run away with the rights to the strip or both. - BL
 
Having read all of Segar's Popeye, much of Sagendorf's Popeye, some of Zaboly's Popeye and all of London's Popeye, I must strongly disagree with Mark Johnson's comments about London. He knew Segar's characters and had a better feel for who they were than anyone who came after Segar, with the possible exception of Sagendorf (who had MANY more years to work with them). - Bob Deveau, Lifelong Popeye Fan
 
Andrés P. Fdez. Harsh words towards your work indeed. He goes as far as saying that there's not much interest overseas for your work and I for one can say -being responsible for the publication of your work in Spain and Latin America- that Mr. Johnson is wrong because Bobby London's Popeye strips have been received very well and continue to harvest well deserved praise.
 
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